The New Shakespeare?

Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England

by Stephen Greenblatt. (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 4)
University of California Press, 205 pp., $20.00

Exciting new developments in the last few years have changed the face of Shakespeare studies, more suddenly than ever before. Traditional assumptions about Shakespeare’s language, ideology, text, etc., have been questioned, often successfully, and good anthologies of this very recent criticism are already available.1 A new book by Stephen Greenblatt, the author of Renaissance Self-Fashioning and one of the leading figures of the latest Shakespeare revolution, is an important event.

The book, as subtle and learned as we have come to expect from Mr. Greenblatt, is not easy to read, so I begin with a brief description. After an introductory essay on “the circulation of social energy,” where he defines his general approach, Mr. Greenblatt has four chapters on one or more of Shakespeare’s plays reinterpreted according to “the new historicism.” The plays that receive most attention are Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and Henry V, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest.

Each chapter starts with an anecdote culled from Renaissance scientific works, sermons, colonialists’ tales—a case history, which is analyzed brilliantly, revealing implications that less expert readers might well have missed. The anecdote illustrates how Renaissance governments and their agents controlled political or cultural minorities, and Shakespeare’s plays of course dramatized similar problems. The anecdote seems to be an essential feature of “the new historicism,” anchoring the plays and their problems in something solidly “historical,” but from these anecdotes to the plays is a big step, and sometimes we get there without quite knowing how. Mr. Greenblatt refers to “linkages,” and describes the anecdotes “as part of the particular and contingent discourse out of which historically specific subjects were fashioned, represented, and communally incorporated.”

Chapter three (“Fiction and Friction”) may serve as an example. “In September 1580, as he passed through a small French town on his way to Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne was told an unusual story”—of a girl who dressed up as a male, moved to a different place, and set up as a weaver. The weaver fell in love with a woman, and married her. “The couple lived together for four or five months, to the wife’s satisfaction, ‘so they say.’ ” But the transvestite was recognized and brought to justice, and “was hanged for using illicit devices to supply her defect in sex.” “I begin with this story,” says Mr. Greenblatt (how seriously?), “because in Twelfth Night Shakespeare almost, but not quite, retells it.”

The anecdote is meant to throw light on the play’s treatment of sexual identity. “I would suggest that Twelfth Night may not finally bring home to us the fundamental distinction between men and women; not only may the distinction be blurred, but the home to which it is supposed to be brought may seem less securely ours, less cozy and familiar, than we have come to expect.”

In Twelfth Night, Mr. Greenblatt argues, “events pursue their natural curve, the curve that assures the proper mating of man and woman. To be matched with…

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